The “S” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Stimulate Senses & Soul.
How often in a project do you find yourself or others taking leave of their senses?
Without question, as design professionals, we’ve been drilled to respond to schedules, budgets and functional needs. But don’t forget — ultimately we are designing for sensory beings.
Remembering the places of your childhood
Think back to touchstone places of your childhood. While many may be associated with other people, family and friends, or events – your first kiss, or the site of an injury – I’m asking you to think about the place itself. For instance, when I think of my grandmother’s house, I think of the smell of breakfast – strong coffee (for the adults), bacon, eggs and cantaloupe. My yard at home? A cherished place was the large wild cherry tree in the back yard with a scratchy limb crotch in which to sit, where I pealed the red bark curls and listened to the wind rustling the leaves while contemplating the “big questions” of life.
I would assert that most people, when they remember significant places, experience the recollection not as a detailed photographic image but rather more as a feeling – recalled sensations and emotional connections. This aspect of place is all but ignored in the course of architectural education and in many architectural practices as well.
Thinking beyond the brain
Architecture is a big subject. That’s part of its appeal. It’s a subject big enough to devote a lifetime to – several in fact. Students are asked: “What does it mean?” Heroism is lauded, as are big ideas and audacious images. Unfortunately an aspect which at best is given short shrift, and sometimes overlooked altogether, is the very definition of architecture itself – place of inhabitation. While our brains are certainly a part of our inhabiting places, first and foremost, we inhabit places with our bodies – and accompanying five senses.
Senses of inhabitation
Image is king in our present digital era. Our sensory experience of places is dominated by sight. If you stop with sight as your sole sensory input channel, you will find yourself with a very shallow, dare I say, flat experience. Your experience will be like seeing the world in black and white, two-dimensional silhouettes rather than in fully modeled, three-dimensional figures in color. Experiential depth, that is to say lasting emotional substance, comes from holistic sensual engagement.
Take an iconic example of furniture design: the “Wassily” chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26. One can certainly appreciate it in terms of aesthetics, technology, cultural history, etc. However, to look at one strictly in terms of “meaning” and function is to miss the sensual experience of sitting in (inhabiting) one. In sitting, one usually first reaches for an arm and feels the smooth, cool of the slender chromed steel frame. Landing in the leather seat is often greeted with a squeak of the leather as it tensions around the frame. Its broad surface, initially cool and stiff as one sits, quickly warms and softens with one’s body heat. The tensile stretch of the leather is contrasted with the springy buoyancy of the slender steel frame. Depending on the age of the chair, one’s nose is treated to smells, somewhere between new leather and an olfactory patina of inhabitation and aging. What richness – and without a mention of sight! Our charge therefore as designers, as we look to enrich our work, is to think with our whole bodies – leaving until last, the input of our vision.
An example from design practice
When I was a teenager, already knowing I wanted to become an architect, my parents took me to visit Fallingwater, the famous house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Before visiting, all I really knew of it was the iconic image of the thin concrete trays perched over the stream waterfalls. I had assumed that that image captured one’s approach to and essence of the house. It doesn’t. In fact, a visitor never sees that view (unless they set off to bushwhacking in the adjoining woods).
Like the best of Wright’s work, Fallingwater rewards all of the senses and certainly is meant to be experienced bodily, that is to say, in person rather than as an image. One arrives to the house by crossing first the stream over which the house is built further downstream. The drive loops “behind” the house – leaving the expansive feel of the stream and replacing it with a sense of compression between the house and uphill bank of the forest valley. We are being prepared for changing places.
To enter any of his houses is to immediately feel intimacy – with an unusually low ceiling. Among the myriad of Frank Lloyd Wright quotes was his assertion that “anyone over 5’-10” tall was a towering weed”. The physicality of the house is palpable: Stone, wood, stucco/plaster, glass and steel –creating dramatic variations in textures. A boulder pushes up from the river bank into the fireplace. The fireplace, with its huge orifice becomes a place in and of itself, not merely a decorative feature.
The relationship of inhabitants to the river is nuanced and varied – not merely a single “perfect” vista. Indeed, from within much of the main living space, the stream isn’t visible at all! Yet, as one approaches the cantilevered edges, the stream beckons. A stair descends directly to the river “for bathing access”. Here is the most intimate of places, a place of private communion with the cool dampness in the shadows, smelling of woodlands and echoing the ripples of the flowing water. That is the immersive place I remember most vividly of that house – not the postcard view.
By cultivating the experience of place as being rewarding to all of the senses, not just sight and intellect, we nourish the soul.
Remember, Stimulate Senses & Soul.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter S, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Saphire and Sand, and a photo of the Streamside Spot at Fallingwater.